Since the mid-1990s, all white American schoolchildren have written every important essay about Martin Luther King, Jr. During this same time, they and indeed whites of all ages have completely unplugged their interest in black culture. Sure, some still kind of follow what passes for rap ("hip-hop") and R&B, but at most that's it. They don't watch all-black TV shows, they don't enjoy movies where one or more blacks have teamed up with whites (exceptions: Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction, and Die Hard with a Vengeance from the mid-'90s), and they feel tepid about musical collaborations between big white and black artists -- I mean long-term, not one making a cameo in another's performance.
Things were very different from the mid-'70s through the early '90s. In the 1974-'75 TV season, three of the top 10 shows in ratings were all-black sit-coms -- Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, and Good Times. Given how small the black population is compared to whites at that time, obviously that was not due to lots of blacks supporting their people's TV shows and whites not caring. They had to win over tons of white viewers in order to dominate the ratings like that. This continued through the 1980s with The Cosby Show and A Different World, and enjoyed another final burst in the late '80s / early '90s with Family Matters, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and In Living Color -- a rare nearly all-black sketch comedy show. In Living Color wasn't as popular as the first two, but it was still well known enough that most white kids knew who fire marshall Bill and Homey the Clown were.
In the theaters, black-white buddy movies got going during the same time period. Blockbuster examples from the later half of the '70s escape me, but 1976 saw the independent Assault on Precinct 13. In 1979 there's Alien, 1980 saw Stir Crazy, and it only grew from there -- the 48 Hrs. series, the Beverly Hills Cop series, the Lethal Weapon series, Commando (remember the black girl who plays Arnold's sidekick), Predator, Aliens, Die Hard, the two Ghostbusters movies, Rocky IV, the Police Academy series, Terminator 2, and so on.
One consequence of the evaporation of interest in the Vietnam War and the newfound obsession with WWII is that even in military movies, where blacks and whites are most likely to unite since it's either that or get mowed down by their common enemy, we don't see blacks and whites teaming up. At best it's the Jewish soldier who joins the WASPs.
Ever since disco music exploded in the mid-'70s, whites were gripped by music that was created by both whites and blacks. Aside from Prince, blacks never really got back into rock music after Jimi Hendrix, but that still left R&B and pop music. And there the biggest sensation throughout the 1980s and even the early '90s was Michael Jackson, whose music and performances relied on both black and white artists. Still, we shouldn't put too much emphasis on listening to music made by blacks as an indicator of white interest in black culture, since that's just about constant. Whites were into Sammy Davis, Jr. and the black girl groups of the 1960s, when they weren't otherwise curious about relating to blacks. And during the '90s and 2000s there's been interest in black musicians, despite pulling out of all other areas of black culture. Interest in black athletes shows the same pattern.
So what accounts for the rises and falls of the willingness of whites and blacks to mingle socially and culturally? Like just about everything else, it comes down to when the violence level is rising or falling, but here the pattern must be explained by the second-order differences in the crime rate. It's clearly not just whether it's going up or down, since white-black collaboration only begins in the mid-'70s -- not in the late '50s or early '60s when the crime rate starts to soar.
Within the period of rising violence levels, there's an earlier half and a later half. During the earlier half, people see the order starting to come undone and worry about the world going down the tubes. However, they have confidence in the powers that be to fix the problem. This confidence is a carry-over from the previous period of falling crime, when the experts and leaders were apparently doing something right. And yet despite the best efforts of the elite to plan around and correct the problem -- for example, JFK's idealism, Johnson's Great Society programs, and so on into the early '70s -- the crime rates keep soaring. So people lose confidence in the power of experts to solve the problem of growing chaos.
Having withdrawn their faith in faraway experts, people start to realize that they're going to have to cooperate with a lot more people -- including those they would otherwise not prefer to relate with -- if they're going to stand up to the growing force of evil that threatens to undo them all. People will always cooperate with their close kin and perhaps even their neighbors within a very small radius, but an ever escalating level of violence calls for more extensive cooperation than that. Now it's time to reach out to other races. And if different races are going to team up, they might as well get acquainted with each other's culture and join in the fun.
That explains why whites and blacks were rather uninterested in each other's worlds from the late '50s through the early '70s, and why that switched from the mid-'70s through the early '90s. So why then did they voluntarily segregate themselves from each other during the mid-'90s? Because as crime rates plummeted after 1992, people saw their world getting safer and order being restored to the universe. Now that the pressing need of uniting to stop rising violence levels had started to abate, blacks and whites saw little point in staying together -- once the war is over, you go back to the different parts of the world that you came from beforehand, even if you keep some memories of your common struggle.
This voluntary cultural segregation will remain until halfway through the next steady rise in the crime rate, or at least 20 years away.
Is there a similar pattern during an earlier crime wave? Yes. Recall that homicide rates began shooting up at least by 1900, perhaps 5 to 10 years earlier, and peaked in 1933, after which they fell through 1958. As predicted, during the falling crime period of 1934 to 1958, there's basically no white interest in black culture other than the constant focus on black athletes and musicians (not necessarily ones integrated with whites). And during the rising crime period of the turn-of-the-century through 1933, whites only really get interested in black culture during the Roaring Twenties.
In the earlier half of rising crime times, they took some interest in ragtime or Dixie jazz music, but during The Jazz Age they immersed themselves in the larger culture surrounding jazz music, not just listening to the sounds but frequenting speakeasies, taking drugs, protecting one another from violent gangsters, evading the coppers, and so on. Not to mention the Harlem Renaissance. If we are to believe a movie like Harlem Nights, white men and black women would have even gotten it on with each other, if the physical attraction were there. That wasn't apparent during the earlier half of rising crime times, and certainly not during the falling crime times of the mid-'30s through the late '50s.
So it looks like only a small fraction of the time will blacks and whites join forces at a steady level, not just for some short-term fix after which they'll disband. Tallying up the numbers, there was one complete cycle in the homicide rate starting with 1934 and lasting through 1992, or 59 years, and only the second half of rising crime times -- from, say, 1975 through 1991 -- saw strong black-white collaboration. Roughly, then, only 1/4 to 1/3 of historical time will feature blacks and whites taking an interest in each other's cultures and more generally feeling like they're part of a larger team.
The bigger point is that it takes very strong social forces to bring different races together, and if they're not there, even the most charismatic individuals are impotent to make the races play nice with each other. White people may have elected a black-white President, but as it was pointed out during the election season, he was basically white people's hip imaginary black friend that they wish they had. The mid-'90s and after have seen a reversion to the "token black guy" role, in contrast to the mid-'70s through early '90s when black-white interaction was essential, not a frivolous luxury item. Obama's efforts to greenify the society will do nothing to unite the races -- for that, we need a team like Riggs and Murtaugh cleaning up the filthy streets of Los Angeles.